The title of Matt Shears’s debut collection, Where a road had been, suggests that linear movement in poetry, once an effective means of transport, has—gradually, inconspicuously—become obsolete. But while Shears mourns the loss of language’s ability to deliver us from delight to wisdom, he also welcomes the challenge of creating non-linear forms. In their contorted and broken grammar, these poems thwart our desire for knowledge or insight and train us instead to take pleasure in the unearthing of questions; Shears’s sentences resist “the music [that suggests] / a kind of a finale” and the death drive of contemporary ambition, struggling instead to “open, into different darknesses.” Pronouns, parts of speech, and beginnings and endings of semantic units often remain indeterminate in these poems, and punctuation interrupts the flow of sense as often as it aids in our understanding. Rather than alienating the reader, however, Shears’s assaults on grammar bring us closer to the inner reality of a speaker to whom the available modes of language seem insufficient and even corrupt. In the book’s first poem, “a next,” the commas dividing each line seem to struggle through buoyant and intellectually meticulous language with an urgency of their own:

        they became absences, it seemed
        when it folded up, when it did close,
        we weren’t certainly, upon a table
        in a voicelessness, the duration
        felt along the edges, was i there

Other poems create caesurae not with punctuation but with white space that splits the line, forcing the reader to arrange and rearrange the pieces and to become comfortable, eventually, with the multiplicity of interpretive options. These breaks call our attention not merely to a psychological fragmentation but to our own capacity to bridge the gaps and create potential meanings:    

        outlines, shorelines        in mist lifting
        away promises        impelled always

        the use of force       the resistance

        it fed upon        a space filled with
        no earth        its earth        without sky

Shears delights in cataloguing and critiquing systems, and often, his insistence on the instability of language has direct social and cultural import.  In “a river, a little town,” terms that might strike us at first as technical, straightforward, or stock-American (“dream,” “grow,” “post-industrial”) are repeated until they seem to slip from their original meanings, their gradual corruption throughout the poem suggestive of the broad but subtle injury done to a society unable to release itself from its descriptors.
But rather than simply seeking to escape obsolete systems, the poems in Where a road had been remain at the sites where deceased forms once stood, overlaying new patterns so that more truthful versions of the self become recognizable. The book’s memorable final section posits these formal endeavors as acts of love, and love itself as a continual “opening / closing / breaking.” Even at the cellular level, these poems don’t allow us to put them in a single category; Shears makes no distinction between the personal and the collective, the physical and the rhetorical. Experimental and forward-looking, yes—but these poems’ engagement in unresolveable questions and their willingness to dwell in uncertainty reveal them to be traditional in the best sense. 

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